Sherlock Holmes is a rowdy, rumbling, dark and grimy affair which preserves much of the appeal of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Victorian detective while giving him a distinctly modern, beefcake make-over. It should please both devotees of the classic novels and films as well as followers of director Guy Ritchie, creator of the very cool, staccato London gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and its more popular, Americanized cousin Snatch.
Ritchie’s Holmes is played with an eccentric panache by Robert Downey Jr. He is, of course, a master detective who employs extraordinary deductive reasoning and uncanny forensic knowledge to solve the most complex of crimes. But unlike the utterly reasonable and iconically British Basil Rathbone character in the 1940’s films, (yet true to Doyle’s novels and stories,) this Holmes displays astonishing martial art skills and swordsmanship to defeat larger, better armed opponents. Fittingly, Downey’s Holmes is also highly peculiar, prone to weeks of drunken isolation and odd experimentation in his famous 221B Baker St. Flat. All of which is much to the bemusement of his old-couple roommate, the good Dr. Watson, who is rendered with understated charm and calm by Jude Law. But if this Holmes deviates from the canon it is the dark, mysterious nature of Downey’s performance that sets him apart. Far removed from Rathbone’s reliable, trustworthy stalwart, we sense that Downey’s Holmes could do just about anything at any given moment.
The dark and brooding cinematography of this film also contrasts to the shadowy, foggy but yet less soiled world of its predecessors. Holmes’ Victorian London is dirty, bloody and brown, almost a sepia-tone in Ritchie’s film. We follow Holmes into the great gears of the English Empire as he chases the evil aristocrat Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) and his rotten-toothed hencemen through London ship-building factories and swine slaughterhouses. The bad Lord defies death in his attempt to control the English House of Parliament by manipulating a powerful secret society that harkens to the Masonic Order and the twisted mysteries of The Da Vinci Code. We are taken through the grinding cogs and dirty guts of Victorian London as Holmes and his steadfast sidekick Dr. Watson employ all manner of guile and gentlemanly muscle to foil these forces of comic-book evil. All of this is amusing, if not enthralling, but the witty banter of the heroic pair of heroes keeps it light and entertaining.
Perhaps the most ungainly moments in the film take place when Holmes fights a series of enormous opponents. Richie employs his trademark stop and start and stutter and fast motion camera technique (seen in both Lock, Stock and Snatch) and then combines them with a rather forced, blow-by-blow deductive reasoning voice-over from Downey that seems highly contrived, if not just plain ridiculous.
However it is safe to say that Downey’s haunted Sherlock Holmes will become a lucrative franchise in the same way that Johnny Depp’s rapscallion Captain Jack Sparrow has launched the many gold-laden ships of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean armada. This seems only fair given that the Sherlock Holmes is surely the original source of the forensic science craze that has recently given us a seemingly endless stream of CSI properties.